Nmherman on Sat, 27 Apr 2002 20:06:01 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Juvenilia Ante Academia 4/4

If one accepts the argument that instrumental paradigms of language 
participate in the use of myth and taboo in order to suppress communicative 
activity, it then becomes necessary to articulate whether and how the 
somewhat narrower domain (relative to language in general) of literacy is 
affected by these dynamics.  Gradations of instrumentality must be 
distinguished, and not every instrumental practice should be uncritically 
equated with an absolute suppression of communicative faculties or any other 
human attribute.  However, neither should it be assumed that there can be no 
rigorous theory generated which can clearly delineate those 
language-practices which inherently disrupt and exploit communicative 
activity.  While it would be impossible to categorize in any but the most 
trivial terms a comprehensive analysis of all possible forms of 
instrumentalization in literate practice, it is nonetheless useful to our 
discussion here to briefly outline some of the more tangible and socially 
pervasive manifestations of instrumental, mythic, and taboo-based 
constructions of literacy.
    One of the most direct examples of how literacy has been connected to the 
patterns we are discussing is a key phrase used by Harvey Graff:  "the 
literacy myth."  In this case, Graff is referring to the traditional and 
still highly influential view that the achievement of basic reading and 
writing skills is a necessary and sufficient condition for all kinds of 
social and economic progress.  What Graff is trying to critique is the 
assumption that in these scenarios of development literacy is "instrumental" 
(in a slightly different but extremely relevant sense of the word), that is, 
a guaranteed and effective means of improving the situation of disadvantaged 
groups and individuals.  In Graff's analysis, the ultimate effect of 
attributing a false potential for a limited literacy is to suppress the 
importance of other factors in achieving various kinds of development, and 
thus to avoid the underlying causes of poverty and crime (to name only two of 
the problems literacy is often proposed to solve).
    The significance of Graff's observations for our inquiry is that they 
emphasize the taboo function of literacy myths:  "illiteracy" becomes a 
justification for social and economic ostracism.  However, the role of 
instrumentality in this myth/taboo complex is problematic.  Graff locates 
error in the assumption of what literacy can accomplish,  beyond itself, as a 
means.  This clearly corresponds in important ways to our above definition of 
the instrumental.  What is much less directly examined in this analysis is 
the suppressive effect that instrumental constructions exert on other types 
of literate practice.  Graff does not deal directly with alternative 
constructions of literacy which might not only avoid the false promises of 
development, but serve to actively bring about legitimate progress toward 
that development.  In this light it is most useful to understand Graff as 
operating on a macro-level of observation rather than a micro-level of 
innovation.  In fact, it is Graff's call for a "third wave" that makes clear 
how the concrete application of "literacy studies" to the full range of 
interconnected factors must engage both the realities of social and economic 
factors and the issue of defining individual literacy.  It is not implausible 
to consider these to be linked goals, and to view a communicative paradigm of 
literacy as one possible way both to restore the proper connections between 
literacy and socio-economic development and to redefine the nature of 
literacy itself.
    One element of the course which dealt very directly with the areas which 
Graff brackets--the individual achievement of literate abilities--was Donna 
Marsh's first short paper.  She writes that certain dominant discourses are 
"valorized" by power elites "not because we...need to communicate, but to 
undermine communication and maintain the status quo" (DM 1).  In the study of 
local writing practices, it was the fact that "when we invalidate form, we 
invalidate content" (DM 1) that revealed the intentional creation of 
illiteracy to preserve power relations.  In the establishment of forms of 
discourse such as the essay and academic style, many of her students who were 
undeniably intelligent and articulate were nonetheless unable to use the 
institutional form effectively.  
    How can issues of myth, taboo, and instrumentalization be applied to 
these observations?  The genres in question are clearly "instrumental" in a 
sense; they are thought to be consciously learned skills which we acquire in 
order to gain entry to a wider discursive community--means to a further end.  
Yet as Marsh suggests, there is no doubt that the same genres serve as a 
filter to exclude certain groups in particular from discourse, not because 
the genres are inherently unusable but because often the discursive 
experience of marginalized groups is uniquely unsuited to the limited, 
self-contained parameters of these institutional genres.  In this situation, 
what we may be seeing is an attempt to expand participation running up 
against structural conditions that either function or are perceived to 
function (or both) as a system of instrumentalization which uses myth and 
taboo to ostracize a particular group.  The result, a primary concern of many 
literacy and writing teachers, is the abandonment of the project of literacy 
by the oppressed group.  When viewed in the context of Graff's analysis of 
culture-wide and institutional myth-systems, it becomes highly plausible that 
the acceptance of illiteracy is linked to the self-recognition of an 
oppressed group's discursive ostracism--a defiant and protesting absorption 
of the sanctions of taboo; a martyrdom of language.  (This concept can be 
linked to Gayatri Spivak's essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?")  Individual 
empowerment is only meaningful in the context of a true social basis for 
    Clearly, the two levels on which myth and taboo operate--the culture-wide 
in Graff, the individual in Marsh--must both be dealt with if the oppressive 
effects of instrumental literacy are to be alleviated.  Indeed, the two are 
integrally linked as projects.  The connection may be clearer in the effects 
that a broad-based social change would likely have on literacy achievements; 
but the causality is perhaps even more compelling (if less obvious) in the 
effects that a truly transformed and communicative literacy practice would 
have on the prospects for social change.  What is of no doubt, however, is 
that the concern of "the third wave" is to create a continuous analysis which 
unites an awareness of socio-economic conditions with a directly practicable 
local literacy practice, and theorizes the interconnections which must be 
built between the two spheres in order for the entire "life-world" (to use a 
term from Habermas) to be reorganized.

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